“I honestly feel like I’m having a panic attack every time I…”

(Important and Encouraging words from “Marc and Angel Hack Life” on this Friday…)

“I honestly feel like I’m having a panic attack every time I…”

Every week I get at least one email with a similar line from a coaching/course student who thinks they’re having a ‘panic attack.’ And since we all panic in our own way on occasion, I figure this is a topic worth covering.

The term ‘panic attack’ is actually a misnomer, since nothing is actually ‘attacked.’ Consider the fact that a car alarm doesn’t ‘attack’ the car it’s protecting, but it can sound when it doesn’t need to. Stopping your mind from panicking isn’t about getting rid of all panic; it’s about aligning it so it only happens when it truly needs to.

The scary feelings (fast breathing, sweating, raised heartbeat, nausea) would all feel perfectly natural if you were running hard on a treadmill at the gym. Really, panicking is just the body behaving as if it’s exercising when it’s not.

All the ‘weird symptoms’ are completely normal in the right circumstances.

Fast breathing, raised pulse: Your body produces these responses to help you exercise. It only feels weird if you are not exercising when they happen.

Sweaty palms: When the sweat dries, you’ll have better grip on your hands to climb trees or hold weapons.

Feeling the need to vomit: If you were covered in it (YUCK!), it would help demotivate a potential predator from eating you!

So these are all, in very extreme circumstances, useful reactions. But if they happen when we’re driving in heavy traffic, sitting in a big meeting, or having a conversation with someone, then of course they feel weird and aren’t helpful.

When you feel panicked, just know that you aren’t ‘crazy’ – that, in their place, small panic attacks are normal, and even useful. But since we don’t want them to get the best of us, let’s take a look at two proven strategies (of which there are many) we can practice to actually stop them:

1. Take control, and stop running to stop panicking.

Stopping small panic attacks is all about taking back control. If your panicking mind gets just one hint that a situation is really NOT dangerous, it will ‘call back’ its big investment of energy. Breathing will slow down again, blood pressure will return to normal, the sweating response will calm down, and clear thoughts will return. Like fire fighters returning to their station after discovering the call was a false alarm.

The key is to take deep breaths and address your panic, rather than running from it.

If you panic in a business meeting room and flee the scene, then your panic response may conclude that the meeting room holds life-threatening horrors because you ran away from it. It will try to be ‘more helpful’ by spreading the fear to perhaps all future meetings in that room or even all situations that have groups of people in them, a bit like the average business meeting.

If you panic but stay in the situation until you calm down, your panic response will learn that it’s not the situation causing the panic. In nature, we avoid what is dangerous. And the more you avoid something, the bigger the fear builds.

The more ‘normal’ you act, the more panic gets the message that it’s not needed. By imagining being in a situation in which you fear you might panic, but instead remaining relaxed, you teach your mind and body to feel relaxed about being in that situation for real.

2. Act normal and get your logical mind working.

You may not feel like ‘acting normal’, but remember your panicking mind is pretty irrational when it’s out of control and it’s looking for cues from you as to whether panic is needed or not.

With that understanding, keep thinking about or doing something that is methodical. Why? Because during times when panic is truly required (a hungry lion running right at you), the logical thinking part of the brain becomes much less active. This happens because we need to become purely physical – to run or to fight. But right now we need to turn this running or fighting off.

If you consciously start counting backwards from one hundred in jumps of three – ‘100, 97, 94, 91…etc.’ – you force your logical thinking brain to work, which actually dilutes the panic response. Making yourself do a crossword puzzle, or any similar brain game, will also force your thinking brain to work, which again sends the message: “This is not a real emergency, so quiet down!”

And of course, if you’re struggling with any of this, know that you are not alone. Many of us are right there with you, working hard to feel better, think more clearly, and get our lives back on track.

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To become a butterfly, you must be willing to give up being a caterpillar.